We caught up with Kate McAllister, who recently completed her PhD, to talk about her research, future plans, and past achievements in the Department of Psychiatry and beyond.
First, tell us a bit about your PhD research and how you got interested in what you studied.
So my PhD looked at mitochondria, the part of the cell that creates cellular energy, and specifically how mitochondria function in Down’s Syndrome. People with Down’s Syndrome have an accelerated ageing phenotype, and they also have early onset Alzheimer’s Disease, and both in ageing and in Alzheimer’s, mitochondrial dysfunction is implicated.
I have a neuroscience background, but more and more it’s the case that neurological and psychiatric conditions are being discussed as systemic disorders. There’s a more holistic approach, with psychiatry and physiology interfacing with whole body systems. I did a Master’s in research on circadian rhythms, but then went on to collaborate with a PhD student who was writing a paper on mitochondrial function, and the process of researching writing the introduction to this paper got me interested in the research from there. It made a lot of sense to me that mitochondrial dysfunction could account for a lot of the phenotype of Down’s Syndrome – the low exercise tolerance, the weakness in muscle tone – and because of my background, the intersection with Alzheimer’s Disease was a big interest for me as well.
So at the onset of my PhD, I was mostly interested in finding a better characterisation of what mitochondrial dysfunction might look like in Down’s Syndrome, and during the process, I spent time establishing links with better-established mitochondrial research teams who helped us study that, so that’s how it developed.
What made you want to do the PhD?
Ever since undergrad I liked research, and I always wanted to do a research degree and take that process as far as I could. So I knew the PhD was going to happen, but it did take me a little time to find one that fitted well with my interests.
And how has that process shaped where you are now?
I think my career to date is very much based on what I’ve done in the PhD. So actually I was working in the private sector for a few months to get some industry experience while also writing up my PhD, for a company called Cambridge Cognition, which was absolutely brilliant. It followed on from what I was doing in my PhD, looking at cognition in dementia and Alzheimer’s; one of the things I really wanted to do when I finished with my research here was to continue with a career trajectory that somehow extended from my PhD.
And now, from March I am going to be leaving Cambridge to work on the MRC Dementias Platform UK, coordinating part of that operation. The Dementia Platform looks at 22 cohorts that are already set up and are collecting data across different types of dementia. I’ll be liaising with the PIs and putting together an outline of the data that is available. I’ll also be working on some foundational research and coordinating of the first phase of research moving forward. And then, hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to begin working on the European Network as well. It really ties into the experiences I had in my PhD – a lot of it is not just about the science, but also the process. I used to go out to do participant interviews, liaising with mums and dads and families and medics and nurses, not to mention the whole process of setting up a study, it’s a skill set – and the clinical PhD experience is quite valuable in that it gives a unique and different set of skills, compared to a lab bench PhD.
Along the way from PhD to career path, you’ve garnered a number of awards.
Right, I was shortlisted for the 2013 Guardian and Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize, which was really good. I had submitted a piece on circadian rhythmicity and how light cycles impact health, nothing to do with my PhD, but that was actually quite nice because I got the chance to do something scientific and technical but a bit of a break from the main body of work I was doing. And then in November I got the New Researcher Prize during the Society of Biology‘s 2014 Science Communication Awards. That was on the back of helping to set up the Twitter account and the Departmental News Page, and also working with The Naked Scientist podcast, Cambridge Neuroscience and the Institute of Continuing Education. I’m looking forward to doing more public outreach when I move to work on the UK Dementia Platform. In fact, it’s a big part of the job. And then, I got an interview in Nature, also in November, which was amazing.
Do you have any advice for current PhD students or those interested in pursuing a higher degree?
It’s such a personal experience…and at the end of the day it’s such a learning experience as well. I found it really to be about the process, and as long as you can intelligently reflect on that in your final assessment, I mean you’re not expected to win a Nobel Prize (laughs)…
I think as long as you work hard and keep some perspective, you’ll be fine. That’s actually really important. The PhD is a challenge, but if you can find other things you like to do as well, I did quite a lot with communications and outreach for example, and honestly that kept me sane during the dark hours of my PhD. That was my one thing; I could focus on it and not feel like I was skiving. Anyway, my advice would be – don’t get overwhelmed!